There is a seldom-acknowledged dimension to the Brexit response on this island. While being hard on yourself is a familiar quality, it is worth taking a generous step back. Faced with outrageous provocation over a sustained period, including from Westminster/Whitehall, the focus is on legal and political solutions. That was plain in the calm and controlled reaction to Brexit and is again present in the thinking about the future. The approach arises from a place of concern, care and respect; moulded by the rawness and lived experience of trauma, pain and hurt, related to the many conflicts on this island. No participant wants to repeat past catastrophes.
Much of what is being discussed in relation to the future of the island of Ireland is based on robust evidence or a sincere commitment to do the work in advance. It is a striking feature of civic and political dialogue in Ireland and defies the ad hominem caricatures of noisy, repetitive and aggressive critics. That is how the latest research findings from The Irish Times North and South project should be contextualised, as yet another good-faith contribution to the necessary work, neither avoiding hard questions nor burying inconvenient results.
Feeding the public debate with reliable evidence is essential. The willingness of the ARINS project and The Irish Times to devote time, energy and space to these matters of public interest must be commended. The ongoing conversations require more such efforts and subsequent forensic testing and tracking.
The headline figures in The Irish Times results have attracted predictable attention, but there is much more going on in the research. If this helps raise awareness of the many scholarly outputs from the ARINS project – a joint project of the Royal Irish Academy and the Keough-Naughton Institute for Irish Studies which studies North-South issues – then that is good news indeed.
It is first useful to ponder what this is all about. Although the complexities and nuances are well known, at heart it is simply stated. The questions circle around the Good Friday Agreement, its interpretation, application and promises. People have a choice about constitutional status: the union with Britain or a united Ireland. The sovereignty puzzle is addressed by a self-determination formula that rests the decision with “the people”. Not with an institution or any political party or even with universities. A point worth pondering.
Universities are productive sites of often sharp contestation and must be safe homeplaces for education and research. However, anyone who believes they are venues for quiet contemplation and uninterrupted rational dialogue has not visited one or served time in senior management. As valuable as the expert work that goes on in higher education is, and as vital as academic freedom and public engagement on the constitutional question remain, universities are not always well-suited locations for the type of participative and inclusive civic conversations that must happen.
The better institutional approach may be to craft and nurture democratic spaces where expertise can be aired and shared openly, away from seminar rooms and lecture halls which are closed to many. Independent academic expertise and criticism operating, as appropriate, as a thoughtful friend of societal transformation. That is why it is encouraging to note the emphasis on innovation in the all-island civic initiatives that will assist the design and planning process for constitutional change. Ireland is providing useful lessons on deliberative democratic dialogue and there is an opportunity to show the world how this might be done well.
That does not mean that governments must stay away. There are risks associated with an absence of governmental/political leadership. One is the lingering impression that something illegitimate is going on, which concedes ground to people who trade off threats and intimidation. Letting those who amplify fear and who nod towards violence win is not how to mark the 25th anniversary of the Belfast Agreement in 2023. Just as it is odd to preach the “principle of consent” and not contemplate holding a referendum, it is silly to talk about peaceful means only and yield to violent force. Political courage suggests a different way forward. The names of the great peacemakers of this island are dishonoured by turning away.
The other problem is that, like it or not, it will be an Irish government, working collaboratively, that must deliver on the proposals and outcomes. Better to start considering that now. Fortunately, the vehicle is there waiting to be used. This is easily accommodated within the current “shared island” framework because reunification is an already anticipated way the island may be shared in the future. The Shared Island Unit in the Dublin government is therefore a potential home for reflections on a new and united Ireland.
All information is helpful to those wanting honest and evidence-based discussions. Few have done more than the academic partners in this project to bring rigour to the table and to assist in putting these questions on the research agenda of universities across these islands and beyond. Ireland is lucky to have access to scholars of global standing willing to explore the various options.
It remains likely, but not inevitable, that people on the island of Ireland will be given a choice about the constitutional future this decade. The collective task of managing that process, and any transition, continues. Due diligence preparation will not be wasted. Deadlines are often as unwelcome here as they are anywhere. But without temporal boundaries, instability will be perpetuated and the looming uncertainty will fuel division. That is the reverse of the standard line, but it is arguably one way to move this on from endless abstract speculation.
At present it is vital to ensure that when the day arrives, and people across the island vote together, they know in precise terms the consequences of their choice. That includes the model of a united Ireland they are voting for or against, as well as the guarantees that must be given to make the change process the global success story many hope it will be.
At times this will be boring, tedious and contentious. Inevitably flawed human beings will complicate the picture in tiresome, wonderful and pluralistic ways. But take a quiet moment to imagine the feeling if we all get this right. Hold on to that and keep going.
Colin Harvey is Professor of Human Rights Law and Director of the Human Rights Centre at Queen’s University Belfast. He is on the Advisory Group of the ARINS project.